Right-to-know commission mulls potential reforms at first meeting

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 07, 2017

As members of a commission to study reforms to New Hampshire’s right-to-know law met Thursday, numerous ideas flew around the room.

David Saad, president of Right to Know New Hampshire, called for an emphasis on educating local officials on their legal duties. Right-to-know advocate Harriet Cady wants a system to reduce costs for the average citizen.

Sen. Bob Giuda wants a law with teeth. The Warren Republican, who was elected chairman of the commission at its first meeting Thursday, repeatedly said the best way to head off costly legal battles is to impose financial penalties on public officials who cause undue delays to honoring requests for public documents.

“There’s a saying at the Naval Academy: With authority goes responsibility. With them both, accountability,” he said. “There has to be accountability, and then you get compliance.”

A financial penalty on the individual, he added, would prevent officials from using an expensive court process to wait out citizens’ demands that information be released sooner. By attaching a personal stake to the process in the future, the Legislature could ensure that officials wouldn’t be able to allow a taxpayer-funded legal process to take over with no liability.

The idea wasn’t universally accepted. Dan McKenna, a member of the Derry Cooperative School Board representing the New Hampshire School Boards Association, called the proposal unfair to school board officials unaware of right-to-know requests made against superintendents. And he stressed that if approved, the penalty should apply only to willful or knowing violations.

But it was one of a range of proposals to improve a law that the commission’s participants agreed is too costly for many to litigate. As written, any and all disputes over the release of information between citizens and officials must be settled in Superior Court.

Advocates for reform argue that the process creates a costly legal roadblock that deters citizens from fighting back.

The 13-member commission – comprising a mix of legislators, elected public officials, advocates and citizens – was brought into being by House Bill 178. That bill, which requires that the commission study “alternative processes” to resolving right-to-know cases, was a rare victory for reform advocates, who had been pushing bills unsuccessfully for four years.

But in its inaugural meeting – held two months after its required statutory date, and two months ahead of the November deadline for its report – the scale of the commission’s task became apparent. Aside from devising an alternative process to resolve complaints, the commission must also find a way to encourage resolution of disputes “directly between citizens and public agencies and bodies.”

To many on the commission, that means educating officials on their requirements to provide documents.

“I’ve been dealing with right to know for many years, and (knowledge of the law) is usually the biggest problem,” said Mark Hounsell, a former Conway state senator representing the New Hampshire Association of Counties on the commission.

Members of the commission proposed other dispute resolution mechanisms, with Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union New Hampshire floating the idea of an ombudsman role in the Attorney General’s office, and Cady and others suggesting an oversight commission.

It was Giuda’s idea for penalties, however, that grabbed the biggest spotlight – and the strongest nods.

“Ignorance of the law is not an excuse,” he said, responding to concerns that public officials. Cady, a former state representative with experience pressing right-to-know disputes in court, agreed.

“Any elected official is at the service of the voter,” she said. “The voter elected (the officials) to serve them, not to serve themselves. And they should always work to make sure the citizens have easy access to government information.”

The commission was tasked with preparing materials examining records request processes in other states; members will reconvene Sept. 21, Giuda said.